North York Moors

North York Moors logo
Browse section

May

Turtle doves by Richard BennettTurtle doves by Richard Bennett

Long warm days coupled with lush trees and hedges alive with the sound of birds, plus carpets of bluebells, one of spring's defining moments.

Our tip

Birdsong is really noticeable now, particularly at dawn and dusk, as birds clamour to partner up with mates, stake out their territories and nest. As birds begin to arrive from the continent to stay in the rich feeding grounds of the North York Moors over summer, competition for good nest sites really hots up. Get up early and head to woodland half an hour before dawn – you'll be amazed by what you hear. Also look out for events around International Dawn Chorus Day in May, Ryenats usually hold one and guests are always welcome.

Also look out for:

  • The beautiful but nationally declining turtle doves, now on the ‘Red List’ of conservation concern. Mainly found in south eastern England, they are occasionally seen on the southern edges of the National Park, and for the last few years at Sutton Bank. Turtle doves, often  seen in pairs so fondly referred to  as the ‘bird of love’, are only around  for a short time, usually in late  April/May through to mid-August before they migrate. If you see turtle doves – and people have spotted them in their gardens – then let us know, as recording bird sightings and behaviours helps  in the battle to save one of the most cherished of birds.
  • Visit a riverside on a still warm day to see the annual hatch of mayfly, where the insects emerge from the water for the briefest of lives: some have under an hour in which to mate, lay eggs and then die. Watch trout jumping to gorge on them. Swallows swoop in low constantly, along with robins, chaffinches, grey wagtails and dippers, and at dusk bats will take their fill too.
  • Over on the coast, it’s breeding time for shore crabs and the female crabs have to moult their shells prior to breeding – so look out for lots of old shells washed up on the shore.
  • Head to Wykeham Forest Raptor Viewpoint for a chance to see many different birds of prey. From goshawks with distinctive 'sky dance' courting to common buzzards, kestrel, sparrowhawk, peregrine, red kites and rare honey buzzards, a delight to watch with their curious ‘wing-clapping’ flight displays.
  • Watch out for the speedy merlin too flying low over the tops of heather hunting for small birds. Fylingdales Moor Conservation Area, managed by the Hawk and Owl Trust, leaves stands of mature heather as safe nesting zones for these agile flyers.
  • The North York Moors is the furthest north you’ll find the Duke of Burgundy butterfly, supporting 10% of the UK’s remaining colonies. Find cowslip and primrose growing in an open sunny woodland clearing in a limestone area (in the dales near Hawnby is one such place) and you may spot this rare little orange and brown butterfly.

Walk of the month

It's a quintessential spring experience as carpets of bluebells cover the floor of ancient woodlands, creating a soft, dreamy blue haze. A soothing sight and a heady scent, also drawing in insects looking for food in the nectar rich flowers, a visit to any bluebell wood is a treat.

Take your pick from Riccal Dale, near Helmsley; Newton Wood and Cliff Ridge Wood near Roseberry Topping; Garbutt Wood with its dramatic view over Lake Gormire, near Sutton Bank; and Pretty Wood at Castle Howard and East Moor Banks which can both be enjoyed on a circular walk from Welburn (pdf).

Yorkshire Coast Nature tips

The experts at Yorkshire Coast Nature are our eyes on the ground, here's Richard Baines' pointers on what else to look out for this month.

May is my favorite month of the year, the newly emerging bright green leaves and the longer days are life affirming, but most of all I love listening to the songs and calls of our wonderful birdlife. Resident birds such as Song Thrush are still blasting out their chorus alongside new arrivals such as Willow Warbler.  

Willow warbler Credit Richard Baines Yorkshire Coast NatureWillow Warblers spend the winter in Africa and by early May most will be on their breeding grounds in the UK. 

They nest on the ground in, or on the edge of woodlands, great and small within a mosaic of low shrubs or young trees. 

In our region they are still relatively common especially in the North York Moors' Forests. 

Look and listen for them where there are glades with new trees regenerating, where older ones have fallen or after forestry operations. 

This is the best month of year to find one as their sweet song carries on the breeze through the forest. Listen for a rippling cadence with a slight rise before falling away at the end.  

Old English names for birds are fascinating. Willow Warblers and the similar Chiffchaff used to be called Featherpaults, still a common name for them at the turn of the 20th Century. This was derived from their habit of building dome shaped nests made from soft feather.  

Turtle dove in the North York Moors Credit Steve Race Yorkshire Coast NatureAnother bird with a highly distinctive song is the Turtle Dove. The North York Moors National Park and Howardian Hills are one of the last places in the north of England where these birds can be seen. The recent massive decline in population has left one of our most popular birds on the brink of extinction from the UK. 

The North Yorkshire Turtle Dove Project has been set up to survey and conserve numbers by working with many partners and landowners across the region.  

Their soporific purring song can be heard from mid-April to late summer. Look out for them in any of the forests or on the edge of small villages between Scarborough and Ampleforth. Several pairs nested close to Sutton Bank Visitor Centre last year so check out the bird feeders outside the coffee shop! 

The most distinctive feature to look for is their highly contrasting black and white tail. The diamond shaped outer tail is a white band which is fanned to great effect during their display flight. The best time of day to hear and see these wonderful birds is for the first two hours after dawn. This is peak singing, display and courtship time for the doves before they move on to a seed rich breakfast later in the morning. Evening can also be good as activity increases again after a mid-day siesta!  

Turtle Doves have a rich history in myth and folklore. They were sacred birds to the Greek gods Demeter and Aphrodite and their purring song was even mentioned in the Bible. Their long association with love comes from their habit of forming monogamous pair bonds which can last several for several years. They have an amazing ability to navigate back to the precise location they bred in the previous year. Titan, a male Turtle Dove satellite tracked to Africa and back in 2014/15 landed only a few kilometers away from where he had nested the previous year!  

Latest sightings

Turtle Doves are back at Sutton Bank! Four were seen near the bird feeders at the back of the visitor centre on 29 April 2018.